Contrary to popular belief, Tony isn't an idiot. When Peter mopes into his lab for the fifth day in a row, he doesn’t ask what’s wrong. He asks Friday to turn on the soundtrack for Be More Chill, and lets Peter tinker. Halfway through their shared silence a weight presses between his shoulder blades. Tony knows without looking that Peter is leaning his forehead in the spot.
"Mr. Stark..." Tony doesn’t turn around. He settles his elbows on the table so he can support more of Peter’s weight. Not an easy feat anymore, with the kid eating more than two super soldiers and an Asgardian combined. Tony fidgets with the screen in front of him, not paying attention to the work anymore, but pretending. Peter always feels better when he isn’t the center of attention for things like this. Peter doesn’t say anything for a long moment, only leaves Tony’s name dusting the air. Tony wishes he could see his face, but reminds himself it won’t help anything. Tony presses back against Peter, keeping his voice soft and low in his chest when he speaks.
“Ready to talk about what's up? You've been down for a little while, kiddo." Peter sighs, turning to rub his cheek against Tony’s back.
Tony is not an idiot; he is always prepared for Peter to talk to him. He does on so many things these days. Not that he can’t turn to May, but he seems to be coming to Tony more. Tony knows that Peter is young. He knows that Peter sees May as an authority first, confidant second. He knows Peter sees him as a strange mix of parent-pal because of his playful nature, yet strict attitude. Tony doesn't mind and even goes out of his way to encourage that behavior, to reinforce that bond. But knowing those things couldn't have prepared him for what comes out of Peter's mouth next. Nothing can prepare him for problems like these. Problems that parents help their children with.
Peter’s voice is quiet as a mouse, "What if I'm not a boy?"
“... What?" Tony’s voice must come out harsher than he means because Peter backs off, hands unfisting Tony’s worn shirt. “Hey, hey. I’m just a little thrown, this wasn’t what I was expecting. Do you think you could explain it a little more for me?” Peter leans on him again, but his hands don’t come back. He must be massaging his stomach to stifle his nervous nausea.
"I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I'm not sure if I’m a boy. Or if I ever was. I don’t know. Hearing people call me a boy has been… difficult recently. I feel, uh, not right when people say stuff like. God, I don’t know. It’s hard to explain because it doesn’t even make sense to me. When Bucky calls me son, it makes my chest hurt like when Hulk squeezes me too tight, but in a bad way? I don’t like when my teachers call me Mr or when May says she sees me as her son. I don’t even like it when citizens call me Spiderman anymore. But I don’t want to be more like a ‘girl’ either.” The quotation is obvious, and Tony feels Peter’s brow furrow with confusion as he leans further into him. “I've already had my whole gay crisis, except it wasn't an actual crisis. It was more like oh, yeah I like pretty much anyone as long as they like me back, or seem like they like me. Or maybe, give me attention?” He’s spiraling.
“Anyways. It was easy to figure out my attraction to other people, but figuring out myself is... not. It’s like I can see the problems written on the board, but the teacher won’t explain how to get an answer. I know what makes me uncomfortable, but I don’t know how to change that. How do I stop myself from being uncomfortable? Do I just pretend I’m not and I won't be? I don’t know, I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know how to fix me.”
That makes Tony pause. He doesn’t know how to do this. He doesn’t know how to stop from making this worse.
But he’ll try.
“I’m going to say this once, and only once. There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing to fix about you. Humans aren’t like robots, we aren’t made to be one way, and we can’t fix it when we don’t fit that. We grow and change and live.” Peter’s eyes have that glint to them, like they’re made of stardust. Like when Tony first gave him his new suit. Like when Tony shows him the schematic for the updates. The worry in Tony’s chest eases just a little. His eyes dull as suddenly as they had lit up though.
“May said something was wrong with me.”
Tony freezes. His blood goes cold as the tundra with shock then white hot with rage. Tony thinks his hands would be shaking if he weren’t holding on to Peter so tight. He takes a long, deep breath. He hasn’t felt anger like this in so long. It’s pure and raw and scary. Tony doesn’t want to scare Peter so he hides it.
Tony turns around with his face schooling into casual calm. Peter looks up for a split second before his eyes find the tiled floor. Tony wither under the sight of him. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days. Tony knows Peter’s been wearing the same pair of jeans for the week. Tony had thought it was another gross habit they’d have to discuss. It makes a lot more sense that Peter doesn’t have more than one pair right now. It makes sense that can’t go home to get more. It makes sense that he’s been spending his free time here to avoid leaving.
Where does he go when he leaves for the night? An ache builds in Tony's chest that he's been forcing the boy out every night when he doesn't have anywhere to go. Tony doesn’t think he’s been going back to the apartment. Has he been patrolling too much? Tony makes a note to talk to Karen later.
Tony opens his arms, and relief floods Peters expression before the tears start. He face plants into Tony’s chest without preamble, trembling hands coming up the rest on Tony’s forearms. Tony lets him sob into his chest until it gets so hard that Peter seems like he’s hiccuping more than he’s breathing.
“Peter, Pete. I need you to breath for me. You gotta calm down, kiddo.” Peter’s hiccups stop somewhat. He’s trying to hold them in, but Tony can still feel his chest jump with the force of them. “Hey, hey. Why don’t you, um, breath with me?”
Tony tries to remember the count Steve uses for Bucky, but it evades him in the face of Peter’s harsh crying. Tony opts for five in, hold, five out, because that seems correct. Tony makes a show of pulling in and blowing out, in the nose then out the mouth. Peter doesn’t meet his eyes, he looks at the reactor glowing through Tony’s thin t-shirt. It gives him something to focus on, and after a minute the breaths take. Peter’s chest stops jumping so much, and he can hold his breath without it bursting back out of him.
Tony brings a hand under his chin, tilting his face up. He takes a rag from a ways down the bench. With a clean spot, he cleans up the tear tracks on Peter’s face. Peter pinches his eyes shut at the stinging smell of the last liquid the towel mopped up. He doesn’t complain until Tony puts the rag down, but it’s only a half-hearted huff. Tony looks at Peter, and his heart hurts. This sweet, sweet boy is feeling so much pain and confusion that he doesn’t deserve. And over something so simple as growing up.
“First off, there's nothing wrong with you. Sure, you're different, but that difference isn't inherently bad or wrong. Second, you always have a home here. I have more than enough space, and Pepper would love for you to join our dinner nights on the reg. She likes you a lot, always will.” Tony adds the last bit for reassurance because he knows Pepper, know she’ll be as angry as he is. She’ll be a little worse at hiding it too. Tony would hate for Peter to think that anger is because of him instead of for him.
“The others are freeloading anyways, another on the list ain’t no thing. I care about you a lot, and I want the best for you. I wish you had come to me about this earlier, but I’m also proud that you came to me at all. It’s scary to be this vulnerable with someone.” Pink sprinkles Peter’s cheeks at that, embarrassment at Tony’s praise.
“But here’s the thing. I have no idea what you’re going through. I get that it’s important and that you need to explore yourself more, but I don’t have much advice to help with that. This whole gender expression journey is unexplored territory for me. ”
“That’s okay, Mr. Stark. I think I just need, uh, support?”
“I can be that. I'm great at support. S'why Rogers is the de facto leader.” Peter’s eyes are still watery, but he’s smiling now. Tony can’t help, but smile back. "Is there something specific you need from me?"
“Can I try, uh. I want to try a different name and pronouns.”
“Lay ‘em on me.”
“MJ’s partner uses they-them-theirs, and I think that would be nice. I don’t know on the name. I don’t mind you calling me Pete or Spidey, though.”
“Okay, done and done. Friday, if you could help me out by correcting me whenever I mess up. Just some friendly little reminders.”
“Thank you, Friday!” Peter pipes up, shy and smiling.
“No problem, kiddo.”
Peter looks happier, even with the tear tracks still glinting in the light. Tony can’t help but smile down at him. Peter leans in for another hug, and Tony wraps him tight. Peter digs his face into Tony’s chest until he has to breath again. He lays his cheek next to the arc reactor, feeling the warmth of the core and Tony’s skin.
“Anything for you, Petey.” He lays a kiss to Peter’s hair, squeezing him tight one last time before he let him go. “How about we look at the new designs I have for your suit? These ones are about looks because that's important, you know?”